Hogs lean on usual 1-2 punch of Wicklander, Kopps vs. Nebraska
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FAYETTEVILLE — Even though Nebraska made him work and got off some good swings, Kevin Kopps was still dominant Saturday night for Arkansas.
Taking the reins from Patrick Wicklander in the sixth, the National Player of the Year took it the rest of the way with four shutout innings to earn another save in the Razorbacks’ 5-1 win over Nebraska.
The victory puts Arkansas in the driver’s seat at the Fayetteville Regional, so it was only appropriate that the ball was in Kopps’ hand at the end of the game in front of a raucous Baum-Walker Stadium crowd.
It may have been a longer outing than some expected for the Razorbacks’ ace closer, especially after his pitched in Friday’s game, but head coach Dave Van Horn said that was precisely their plan. They hoped Wicklander would give them five or possibly six innings before turning things over to Kopps.
On the way to his second 12-out save of the season, though, the Cornhuskers managed to notch three hits off Kopps. The first of those was a two-out RBI single by Luke Roskam that scored the runner Kopps inherited and pulled them within a couple of runs.
“Honestly, I thought we had very competitive at-bats off Kopps,” Nebraska coach Will Bolt said. “Luke got that big hit there and it's a 3-1 game. We were right there with a shot. I still felt we were very competitive against him. He had to make some big pitches against us.”
That proved to be the only run of the game for Nebraska. Cam Chick hit a leadoff double down the right field line in the seventh, but that was the second and final time the Cornhuskers made it past first base.
Kopps retired nine of the next 10 batters, with a one-out single by Jaxon Hallmark in the eighth mixed in. However, it was far from easy, as Nebraska battled at the plate and worked five full counts - out of 15 total batters - against him. Part of the blame, according to Van Horn, rested on home plate umpire Kellen Levy’s shoulders.
“They did a pretty good job, but I think the zone was extremely… It was jumping all around back there and I think both pitchers didn’t know where to throw,” Van Horn said. “That was a little frustrating. It think it cost both pitchers a lot of pitches.”
With the clock ticking closer to midnight, Kopps notched his fifth and sixth strikeouts of the game to start the ninth and then got a ground ball by Brice Matthews to end the game.
Roskam, who had the RBI single and later grounded out against Kopps, said what makes the SEC Pitcher of the Year and Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year so tough is that you can’t see the spin on the ball.
“The cutter really works off of his fastball, so he can really surprise you with the fastball,” Roskam said. “A lot of us are seeing cutter and for a good reason, it’s a really good pitch, so when the fastball kind of breaks off the same plane, it's a pretty tough pitch to hit.”
The four scoreless innings lowered his season ERA to 0.74 in 72 2/3 innings and gave him save No. 11, which is tied for sixth on the UA single-season list and three shy of matching the school record.
It did require 71 pitches, though, but that total didn’t really concern Van Horn because “that’s what he does.” Combined with his 2 1/3-inning outing Friday against NJIT, Kopps has already thrown 95 pitches in the Fayetteville Regional.
The most he’s thrown in one weekend this season is 125 in the Tennessee series and the only time he’s pitched on three straight days was against Auburn at the beginning of April, but Van Horn didn’t rule him out for Sunday’s game. Instead, he said they won’t know his availability until seeing how he feels Sunday.
“Obviously we probably wouldn’t want to pitch him tomorrow, but kind of depends on him,” Van Horn said. “He’s a different cat. I’m just telling you. It’s different.”
Wicklander Goes 5 Strong
Arkansas followed its usual formula Saturday, with Kopps taking over for Wicklander and going the rest of the way. Before making the call to the bullpen, though, the Razorbacks got five solid innings out of their left-handed ace.
Wicklander did “just enough,” Van Horn said, pitching five shutout innings before giving up the leadoff single in the sixth that came around to score. Before that hit, he had allowed just three base runners - two walks and a single - and none of them got to second base.
However, it wasn’t a particularly efficient outing. He needed 89 pitches to get through the fifth and finished with 92.
“Nebraska did a nice job of fouling off a lot of pitches,” Van Horn said. “They got his pitch count up. He contributed to that by getting behind in the count early, but he fought back a lot.”
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